The Office of Marital Influence

I HAVE TO ADMIT, it's been pretty entertaining to watch the meltdown of the Pentagon's so-called "Office of Strategic Influence" and the attempts of high-ranking military and White House officials to clarify just what sorts of lies the Pentagon will tell, and to whom.

What are we to make, then, of President Bush's request last week for $300 million to encourage welfare recipients to marry? Is he planning to, like, drop flyers from airplanes onto the ghettos of urban America? With diagrams for the illiterate and maybe a Pop Tart or two? (Most importantly, will prospective recipients be told the full truth about marriage?)

Dubya really does appear to need constant reminders that the Constitution prohibits him from substituting his faith for public policy. Stripped of religion, marriage basically means filing with the government your intent (more and more rarely fulfilled these days) to pursue a lifetime commitment with another person. The usual requirements—aside from that person having to be of the opposite sex, another infliction of religious doctrine—are a blood test and a little cash. The payoff is a whole host of societal benefits, everything from tax breaks to eligibility for pensions and insurance, rights to inheritance, and social status.

Why, then, would people not get married? Generally, one of four reasons: Either their true love is of the same sex; they don't feel like registering their personal affairs with the government; they dislike the cultural baggage and expectations attached to marriage; or there's not a person in their lives with whom they want (or who they think merits) a lifetime commitment.

Bush's hope to make marriage a part of public policy for welfare recipients is social engineering, directed, as is usually the case, at the poor (the wealthy, it is presumed, don't have lives that need "fixing," through marriage or anything else). It's yet another subtle assumption that if you're poor, it's your own damn fault, and we've got just the solution that you're too stupid or weak to have considered on your own—and we're going to force you into it.

Bush is correct that children do better in two-parent families. But the key word here isn't "families"—however narrowly he chooses to define the term; it's "parent." All the "premarital education" in the world won't fix poor parenting or a parent who doesn't care or isn't there. As it happens, lifting people out of poverty sometimes does fix these things—which is why demanding marriage while condemning people to dead-end minimum-wage jobs, slashing child care and access to education and job-training programs, and other Bush "tough love" measures will make marriage less, not more, attractive. Marriages tend to unravel most often when they're under economic stress of exactly the type that Dubya thinks should be a healthy motivator to . . . get married. The Pentagon's now-extinct (unless they were lying) office is doubtless taking notes.

There are very few ways in which a government could meddle more deeply into people's private lives, where it has no business. It's also a slippery and well-greased slope on the way to requiring marriage for additional, or any, eligibility for benefits. Feminists and welfare advocates will howl that marriage "incentives" (or requirements) are highly dangerous to women in abusive relationships, which is true. But it's also highly homophobic.

One of the reasons gay marriage has become a hot issue for some queers in recent years—even though it's an institution many queers see as oppressive—is precisely that it makes one eligible for a whole host of benefits in our society. For everything from insurance to immigration, sham marriages are a long, necessary tradition for queers. Slowly, that's changing. But the Bushites are bucking the trend—encouraging more people to enter into fake marriages, in this case to satisfy a deeply humiliating bureaucracy that already demands absurdly intrusive amounts of information about a person's personal and financial life.

The patronizing we-know-what's- best-for-you welfare ("helping") industry is supposedly a Democratic abuse, not linked with free-market, get-guv'mint-off-our-backs Republicans. But both parties appreciate the electoral advantages of kicking around the poor. It's one thing for the government to lie to us. It's another, even worse thing when the government is forcing us to lie—to them, if not to a prospective spouse—in order to put food on the table in hard times. If George W. Bush is this intent on substituting the Bible for the Constitution, surely there's some sort of condemnation of lying in there somewhere. Perhaps he should read it.

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